Georgie true to the Clarke Olympic odyssey

Simon Turnbull discovers a young runner following a giant's footsteps
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The Independent Online

The story of the Clarke family and the Olympic Games is about to be updated. The most recent chapter was penned in 1968, when Ron Clarke's quest for Olympic gold ended inliteral heartache.

The prolific world record- breaker was left a broken man in the thin air of Mexico City, carried off on a stretcher with an oxygen mask clamped to his face after finishing sixth in the 10,000m final. The specialist who performed open-heart surgery on him several years later attributed Clarke's condition to the strain of pushing his body too far at high altitude in Mexico.

Now 63, Clarke runs a training resort for athletes on Australia's Gold Coast. His complex, at Couran Cove, has become popular with competitors preparing for this year's Olympics, and one recent visitor has been the sensation of the summer track-and-field season down under, the schoolgirl who can expect to be confirmed in the Australian team for the Sydney Games in September.

Georgie Clarke happens to be related to the all-time Australian great, the man who simultaneously held seven world records (three miles, 5,000m, six miles, 10,000m, 10 miles, 20,000m and one hour) in 1965. Her father's great-grandfather and Ron's great-grandfather were brothers.

They share another common bond. Ron was a teenage prodigy who set world junior records for 1500m, the mile and two miles in 1956. At 19, he was not quite quick enough to gain selection for that year's Olympic Games in his home town, though he carried the Olympic torch into the opening ceremony at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, burning his right arm in the process.

If Georgie gets her fingers burned in Sydney it will be strictly in the metaphorical sense, though the 1500m form she has produced since the turn of the year suggests that the pace of Olympic competition will not be too hot for her to handle. She has clocked the second fastest ever time by an Australian woman at the distance, 4min 06.77sec, won the Australian senior title and taken the scalp of SoniaO'Sullivan. All at the age of 15.

Ron Clarke, for one, can see a big future for the little girl from Geelong, Victoria's second city. "Georgie is at an age when you can go off the boil because of all sorts of things, like injury and maturity," he said, "but the spirit and aggressive way she runs is such that I think that she will be a very big name.

"Despite her youth she's not scared of anyone. She does not want to stay in her age- group races but wants to put her talent up against the best to see how good she is. That is the spirit you need to improve. She has that fire in her belly."

That competitive fire has been inherited from closer to home than the distantlyrelated Ron. Georgie's father, David, was an Australian Rules football star with Geelong and Carlton. Her brothers are noted footy players, too - David junior with Geelong, Tim with Hawthorn. Georgie, though, is already making a name for herself beyond the Australian sporting scene.

Last summer she won the 800m title at the inaugural IAAF world youth championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, and she currently stands second in the IAAF's world outdoor rankings for 1,500m with the 4:06.77 she clocked in Hobart in January - behind the 4:06.23 recorded by Toni Hodgkinson of New Zealand in Melbourne three weeks ago.

She will be three months past her 16th birthday by the time the Olympics come round, and if the planning of her manager, Nick Bideau, works out, she will not be overawed by the track stars surrounding her. Since last summer Bideau has had her mixing and training with two women who have won world senior titles - Cathy Freeman, whose career he also guides, and O'Sullivan, who happens to be his partner.

"Sydney's a big goal for me," Georgie said. "I know I will never get another opportunity to run at a home Olympics. It's so inspiring."

Ron Clarke would not disagree. He is a man, after all, whose Olympic tribulations inspired one of the greatest athletes in the history of the Games. Emil Zatopek once gave him a small packet as he prepared to board an aeroplane at Prague airport and told him: "I want you to have this because you deserve it." It contained the 10,000m gold medal Zatopek had won at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.